PERHAPS the biggest question raised by “A Woman of Uncertain Character,” Clancy Sigal’s gripping and gritty memoir of his mother, is why it took him so long to write it. How could such a talented scribbler (journalist, screenwriter, author of four novels, one of them -- “Going Away” -- a National Book Award nominee), brought up by a woman who was a veritable Category 5 force of nature, not have written about her long before this?
The answer is undoubtedly that Sigal has needed almost his entire life to sort things out. His mother, Jennie Persily, was a red-headed, radical, rabble-rousing Jewish immigrant who led her first sweatshop strike at age 13 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and (not much later) hung out with Clarence Darrow and Emma Goldman. Having become an unwed mother at age 31, she soon packed young Sigal up and rode the rails south, organizing workers while evading cops, sheriffs and company goons and immersing him in the sort of whirlwind childhood that might well have taken even the most assiduous of writers half a century or so to process.
Now in his 70s, Sigal has a 10-year-old son named Joe, who has given him reason to write it all down. He desperately wants Joe to feel the near-magical power that Jennie -- a free-loving “warrior queen,” a “crazy bohemian” -- and Sigal’s brooding, brawling, pistol-packing and mostly absent father, Leo Sigal (also a union organizer), exerted on all who crossed their paths. Together, Sigal writes, they “were part of an underground stream in American life that for long periods seems to vanish without trace before suddenly resurfacing.” Such people, he says, “are indispensable to the health of the nation because without them very little good would be accomplished: they have whatever it takes to go against the currents of ignorance, superstition, ugliness, and injustice.” In recounting his mother’s agitated and agitating life, Sigal has also delivered a eulogy for a combative, self-conscious, often violent American working class, whose two-fisted militancy has been buried under decades of hedonistic mass consumerism.
Much of Sigal’s memoir centers on his Depression-era adolescence in Lawndale, a not particularly verdant square-mile patch of inner-city Chicago also referred to as the “Greater Vest Side” because of its predominantly Jewish population. While the adults loudly debated the nuances of socialism, communism, Marxism, anarchism and syndicalism, Sigal and his cronies -- known as the Rockets -- fended for themselves on the neighborhood’s mean streets. Wealthier Chicagoans considered Lawndale a “filthy, cockroach-infested, crime-ridden slum full of ... the lowest form of Jew.” For the young Sigal, though, it was a wonderland of adventurous hard knocks and intoxicating freedom. Unlike his own son, swaddled and coddled in a youth-centric culture obsessed with play dates, soccer leagues and after-school enrichment programs, Sigal and his pals pinballed wildly through their urban playground, veering back and forth in avoidance of the law, worshiping the Chicago Cubs and occasionally joining in their parents’ battles with Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, the scabs and sometimes the Teamsters.
The blinding sun in this mini-universe was Jennie. All light emanated from her towering presence. But she also cast a deep shadow that threatened to overwhelm and suffocate Sigal, who describes himself as an “overweight, ungainly, waddling kid with an undescended testicle and women’s breasts,” slowed down by what everyone including himself called a “low normal” IQ. Simultaneously emasculated by and attracted to the raging passion of his mother, Sigal found himself in a lifelong Oedipal rivalry, pitted against his emotionally and physically remote father (whom, in a surprising chapter late in the book, he encounters after many years of estrangement).
Longing to declare his independence from the woman who had so demarcated the boundaries of his existence, Sigal, age 15, joined the wartime Communist Party. Nothing, he figured, could be a greater affront to Jennie, who was an ardent socialist but an even more ardent anti-Communist. “By a process of elimination, signing up and dropping out of Lawndale’s many youth groups,” he writes, “I deduced which would be the most repellent to her. Mere juvenile delinquency didn’t cut it anymore. We were a political family, after all.” But Jennie was hardly the sort to succumb to his ploy, and she refused to cut off her only child just because he’d been temporarily seduced by Stalin.
Sigal’s ambivalent ties to his mother persisted. In her later years, Jennie moved to Los Angeles, where she still loomed central in her adult son’s life. With brightly painted nails and henna streaks in her hair, she took to carousing in Las Vegas and Tijuana, having apparently given up on the proletariat. Together, they made an unsuccessful stab at running a hamburger stand. Only the buffeting storm of McCarthyism, which prompted Sigal into self-exile abroad, would finally and forever separate the pair.
When news of his mother’s death reached him in England, Sigal, stunned, shaved his head and remained immobile for days. And then, suddenly, dry-eyed and deliberate, he sat down at a Corona and his fingers flew over the keys as never before.
“The piece that rattled off the roll of yellow copy paper, a trick I picked up from Jack Kerouac, had nothing to do with Jennie but came easily and fast, a short story out of nowhere,” he says. “It was my first literary lesson, that sometimes there’s a body buried in any writer’s skull, a sacrifice as primitive as any Aztec’s.” His mother had neither prodded him to become a writer nor discouraged him from it, but Sigal concludes that it was her doing, all the same: “It seemed as if all that anger, resentment, and pent up fury she could never articulate, for fear of being consumed by it, shot straight into my veins.”
The trick now, as Sigal sees it, is how to transmit that same passion, righteous indignation and sense of commitment to his son -- how to pass on the light, that is, without recasting the dark, enveloping shadow. But he wonders whether, in molding and nurturing his child, he has become a mere clone of his own parents. He worries about that. Don’t we all?